Jake Harrison and Jason Smallidge laugh about it now, but if the two hadn’t been trapped in a car together for five hours last summer, who knows what their friendship would be like today.
“It is kind of ironic, but I always say everything happens for a reason,” Smallidge said. “Harry happened to move in with Kevin (Conley) and I over the summer, and we had a lot of time to get to know each other. When we went to Lake of the Ozarks together, we had a five-hour car ride of us just talking, and we had never had that connection before.
“We were close last season, but nowhere near what we are now. We were just buddies from there on out.”
Those car ride conversations included a variety of topics — family, their background in hockey, the mutual connections they shared — and concussions. The latter is what Harrison has been plagued by throughout his hockey career.
The latest one came on Nov. 12 at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. A 5-1 loss that night to the St. Cloud State Huskies, that was the last time Harrison stepped on the ice this season. It’s likely the last time he’ll do so in his career too.
“When it happened, I just knew the feeling, especially since I had a history of them,” Harrison said. “I tried to finish out playing the game, but I didn’t really feel right. So I told our trainer (Josh Englebretson) and the coaching staff, and I sat out the Saturday game.
“Then as the weeks went on, I talked to my teammates and my family. Everyone that knew me and knew the history behind my injuries, they were worried. So, I was leaning towards making a decision and obviously it’s a hard decision to make. Committing to it was the hardest part.”
Committing to that decision ultimately led Harrison to hang up his skates in early December. While he was growing up and playing junior hockey, he dealt with concussions. Harrison admits it was something he had in the back of his mind during the recruiting process too.
But he tried not to let the thought of a concussion deter him from playing at the Division I level.
“I had one my last year in West Kelowna (BCHL) and it kind of took the rug from under my feet,” he said. “It happened in late August, and I didn’t really get back to playing until the end of February, and it was probably the worst one I ever had. That whole time I was working with these specialists to get me back to where I needed to be though.
“I felt I could play hockey again safely, and I expressed that to the coaches here, and that’s why they still brought me in.”
The sophomore said the school aspect was the hardest part and the fall became tough at times. But he gives a lot of credit to Smallidge for being there throughout the whole process.
As fate would have it, Harrison’s injury led to Smallidge’s season debut the next night in St. Cloud. Maybe it was fitting, but their injuries and friendship were linked together several times this season.
“I was still dealing with my wrist at the time, but I was getting healthier, and I was almost ready to play,” Smallidge said. “So, I ended up going on that St. Cloud trip and he got injured the first night, which led me to play. I honestly wasn’t sure if I was ready, but I got a couple shifts and it was nice to get back into it.
“Then after St. Cloud, we went to Alaska and I got a knee injury, so I was injured again until Christmas. We hung out a lot during that time and even though they were different injuries, we tried to be there for each other during the recovery.”
After dealing with a serious injury himself last summer, Smallidge said that the roles had almost kind of reversed. Especially knowing Harrison’s past with concussions, those same conversations he had about his own injury came full circle.
“I know it was a tough decision for him and I was just trying to be there for him,” Smallidge said. “I knew what I thought he should do, and I think he made the right decision. You only get one brain and there are more important things in life.
“I didn’t want to lead him one way or the other, but I was trying to lead him down the path because I didn’t want him to go through any more than he already had.”
Harrison played in just eight games this season and 18 in his career. Harrison said he’ll keep his health and future at the forefront going forward, but he still has three years of eligibility left if he ever wants to try and return to the ice.
Although he won’t be on the ice next season, he’ll still go to school at UNO and work toward his degree in business administration. He also wants to remain involved with the hockey program in some form, whether that’s through helping out with the program itself or working with youth hockey players in Omaha.
“I feel super fortunate to have been able to make it here and now still be here,” Harrison said. “It’s funny, but when I told people I was committing to Omaha, they all asked where’s Omaha? Why are you going there? And nobody really understood. I wasn’t really sure either and I was super nervous. But after moving here and meeting the guys and all the staff, it’s become my new home.
“When I went back home for a month over Christmas, I wasn’t sure what my plan was for the second half. I knew I wasn’t playing, but when I was back home, I missed the guys and I missed Omaha. So it was just a sign for me to come back. When I came back it was really nice the door was still open and I could be a part of the team and be around the rink.”
As for his roommate, Smallidge now faces a decision himself. He entered his name in the transfer portal on March 28 and still has one year of eligibility remaining. He’s heard from a couple schools so far, but at the same time, he isn’t even sure if he’ll see the ice again.
Smallidge is set to get another surgery in May on the same wrist that hindered him this season. He last played on Feb. 4 and also played in just eight games this year.
“Everyone wants a fairytale ending, but I didn’t get that (in Omaha),” Smallidge said. “There have been ups and downs, especially this season. But at the end of the day, I’m happy with my career at Omaha. It is what it is this year, but I loved my four years here.”
As for his senior season specifically, Smallidge admits it was a mental grind in every sense. But there’s been a friendship forged out of it that will last forever.
“The first half of the year, it was very taxing,” he said. “When the guys were on the ice, I was in the weight room by myself trying to make it back. I know that there were some long days, but when Harry was injured too, we were together doing workouts and recovering at the same time. So it was nice to have someone in the same boat to go through it with.
“It was frustrating at times, and yeah things didn’t always go our way, but we were both there for each other at important points in our lives. We’re both thankful for that.”